Union army didn't forget New Market

Aftermath: In June 1864, Union Maj. Gen. David Hunter led about 18,000 Union soldiers into the valley town of Lexington, where they burned the Virginia Military Institute.

May 09, 2004|By Bridget Seamon | Bridget Seamon,SUN STAFF

In the spring of 1862 General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson wrote, "If this Valley falls, Virginia falls." The valley he wrote of was the Shenandoah Valley, a lush stretch of farmland and small towns, landscaped by the Blue Ridge Mountains, which served as the battleground for hundreds of armed clashes during the Civil War.

The Confederate army relied on the valley -the "breadbasket of the Confederacy" - for food and used it as a transportation corridor to the North. The Union army, aware of the strategic importance of the area, fought to gain control in hopes of fulfilling Jackson's prophecy. In May 1864, the armies faced off in the Shenandoah Valley in the Battle of New Market.

The Battle of New Market pitted the Union army's Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel against Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge, a former senator who had lost the presidency to Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

Four hours

The battle lasted only four hours, but the consequences of the Confederate victory had far-reaching effects.

The most immediate consequence was positive for the South; Breckinridge's men had slowed the Union momentum, breathing some life back into their failing cause. It's likely that the Union would have emerged as the victor sooner if the Battle at New Market had not taken place.

In June 1864, the Union army proved it had not forgotten the loss at New Market. Maj. Gen. David Hunter led approximately 18,000 Union soldiers into the valley town of Lexington on June 11, moving toward the Virginia Military Institute.

Two hundred and fifty-seven cadets from the Institute had fought in the Battle at New Market, and all but 10 of them returned, getting back not long before the Union army arrived.

Hunter avenged the New Market defeat by burning the cadet barracks and two faculty residences as well as other important parts of the property, notably the library, laboratory and scientific equipment. The troops also removed the statue of George Washington, which was taken to Wheeling, W.Va., as a "trophy of war" but was returned in 1866.

The cadets had been ordered on the night of June 11 to retreat into the Blue Ridge, which may serve as an explanation for why there are no military or civilian deaths linked with the destruction.

Northern view

William G. Watson, who served under the overall federal commander, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, explained what he believed spurred the attack: "From our camp that night we witnessed the burning ... which was done by order of General Hunter because of the finding of circulars calling in the people to poison and bushwhack Yankee invaders."

According to Southern lore, however, Hunter was a traitor to Virginia who acted ruthlessly against his native state, in a manner that was unnecessary and undeserved.

The root of Hunter's motivation is not documented, but the Union's reaction to it is: Henry A. duPont, a native of Delaware who attended West Point only because VMI did not accept anyone who lived outside of Virginia, was reluctant to burn the school.

DuPont went on to become a senator, and in the early 1900s he presented a bill that would provide the VMI with the funding necessary for repairing the damages; $100,000 was provided for the institute, which was then used to build the long-awaited memorial to Jackson.

Bridget Seamon is a senior majoring in creative writing at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of an academic internship at The Sun.

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